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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Variations on a Polish Theme, Op 10 (1904) [19:01]
Helmut LACHENMANN (b. 1935)
5 Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert (1956) [7:02]
Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b. 1934)
Variations from the Golden Mountain (2014) [9:19]
John ADAMS (b. 1947)
I Still Play (2017) [5:15]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Piano Variations (1930) [12:06]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Variations (1936) [7:56]
Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Chaconne (1963) [9:06]
Clare Hammond (piano)
Rec. December 2019, Potton Hall, Westleton, UK
Reviewed in SACD stereo and surround.
BIS BIS-2493 SACD [70:59]

This SACD is by no means the first ever release consisting solely of sets of variations, but it is quite possibly the most imaginatively sequenced that has crossed my path. One imagines it would work most effectively in the recital hall. As on her previous recordings, Clare Hammond plays everything here with vivacity, intelligence and outstanding technique. Most impressive is her communicative spirit in those items which are likely to prove more challenging for some listeners. It may be a surprise if I were to tentatively suggest that Copland’s famous work might actually be a tougher nut to crack than those by Lachenmann and Birtwistle which feature on this issue.

Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme is a somewhat elusive product of the composer’s early twenties, a substantial and vividly contrasted set which is arguably as accomplished a big statement as either of his second and third sonatas. The influences of the usual suspects, most obviously Richard Strauss and early Scriabin are inevitably to the fore, but Hammond never loses sight of the bigger picture; the imaginative way she points up the considerable timbral and emotional contrasts between the ten variations creates the illusion that the conspicuousness of the theme itself decreases as the piece proceeds. The most obvious change in tone occurs with the eighth variation, an austere, Mussorgskian Marcia funebre which Hammond builds superbly before she tackles the extended finale; this includes a fugue which seems Brahmsian in its accessibility for the listener but appears to approach Regerian complexity for the performer. Hearing the Variations on a Polish Theme in this context (as opposed to on an all Szymanowski disc) suggests it contains far more substance and depth than I had previously realised.

If the appearance of the name ‘Helmut Lachenmann’ on a recital programme is likely to strike fear into traditional pianophiles, his 5 Variations on a theme of Franz Schubert (the product of another composer in his twenties) prove to be playfully invigorating in a rather Kagelian manner. This is a most enjoyable confection which contrasts virtuosic levity with gnomic unpredictability. It’s dispatched by Clare Hammond with palpable engagement. That word ‘gnomic’ is also perfect for the initial musings and Pinter-pause inculcated stutterings of Harrison Birtwistle’s splendid Variations from the Golden Mountain. To my ears Birtwistle’s style is instantly identifiable, and here his gruffer fingerprints are softened by moments of astringent tenderness. I have a high regard, even affection for Birtwistle’s music – it invariably projects a no-nonsense Northern-ness which really gets under my skin and Hammond finds it in spades in these strange variations which emerge as unexpectedly pianistic. Its campanologically touched conclusion is resonant and haunting.

A neatly contrasted diptych of Americana follows. John Adams’ recent I Still Play is brief, subtle, warming and clever. It’s a little tribute to Robert Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records and consequently one of Adams most crucial patrons. The swaying elegance of its first half yields to oddly-syncopated little figures which stop short of full-on jazz. Hammond unerringly conveys the authentic affection at its heart. For listeners unfamiliar with the piece, Copland’s thorny Piano Variations of 1930 may well come as a shock. This is bare, fastidiously constructed, pared-down dissonance infused with tiny rhythmic diversions which swing briefly. I have consistently found the work difficult to love. To Clare Hammond’s great credit, she turns in one of the most coherent accounts of this diffuse, tentative and frankly sinister score I have yet encountered. The overlaps with Copland’s earlier and more directly communicative Piano Concerto come vividly to life. It is also superbly recorded – ensuring that an entire spectrum of previously unsuspected colour and depth emerge from a work I have previously found arid and unforgiving.

Hindemith’s Variations of 1936 originally formed the second movement of his first piano sonata but it eventually became an independent work in its own right. The harmonic profile of its stately opening has much in common with that in Musica Humana, the mighty central panel of the same composer’s symphony Die Harmonie der Welt. The piece proceeds with both purpose and caution, until a puckish Bewegter variation strikes a contrasting tone. This melts into a more densely scored episode (again brilliantly caught by the BIS engineering team) which in turn yields to light, declamatory figures rich in ornamentation, the effect one of blissed-out suspension. The close of the work returns the listener to the serenity of its opening. Again this pianist makes a strong case for a work which has never really struck me as one of Hindemith’s masterpieces.

The disc concludes with Sofia Gubaidulina’s early Chaconne. Its virile opening chords create a similar impact to the initial bars of Galina Ustvolskaya’s uncompromising Piano Concerto but whilst that fine work doggedly sticks to a stable pulse throughout its duration, Gubaidulina’s extraordinary piece is the embodiment of the widest possible variety of pace, colour, mood and dynamics in what emerges here as a whirlwind tour-de-force of pianistic pyrotechnics. It’s fascinating how its rapid central section seems to move almost imperceptibly between Scriabinsque ominousness, Shostakovich-like irony and Schnittkean world-weariness. These turn-on-a-sixpence emotional transformations are powerfully conveyed in Clare Hammond’s unfailingly musical reading.

In sum, ‘Variations’ amounts to a meticulously curated and thrillingly executed anthology of examples of the genre collated from the literature of the last 120 years. Clare Hammond is a committed and exciting advocate for each of these pieces notwithstanding the austerity at the core of a couple of them. That the programme hangs together so cogently is as much a tribute the depth of her knowledge as it is to her musicality. The recording is ample and welcoming in both stereo and surround options although, as ever, I prefer to hear solo piano fare through two speakers. Pianophiles seeking something off the beaten track will find much to enjoy and admire here.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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